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Evil? Stupid? Which is worse?

And is there really a difference, when they’re both killing you?

This was brought on by Riverbend’s recent post.

“The Americans have done a fine job of working to break [Iraq] apart. This last year has nearly everyone convinced that that was the plan right from the start. There were too many blunders for them to actually have been, simply, blunders. The ‘mistakes’ were too catastrophic. The people the Bush administration chose to support and promote were openly and publicly terrible- from the conman and embezzler Chalabi, to the terrorist Jaffari, to the militia man Maliki. The decisions, like disbanding the Iraqi army, abolishing the original constitution, and allowing militias to take over Iraqi security were too damaging to be anything but intentional.”

I wonder. My immediate reaction is the same as hers. Nobody could be that stupid. (I adhere to the conspiracy theory that says it’s about oil. Once you have the war of the all against the all, they grind themselves to rubble, and then you have a free hand to come in with your siphon and get the black gold for next to nothing.)

But the scientist in me insists on considering the null hypothesis: What if they are that stupid?

Think about it. What if they really are that stupid? The mind reels. It’s actually easier to think they could be that evil instead of that stupid.

And the implications for democracy are staggering. It means there really is a minimum of wisdom required to run a country. It implies not everyone has it. We’d have to start limiting the pool from which leaders can be elected. But how? Any limits always seem to wind up selecting for rich and powerful nincompoops. Which is where we are now.

My head hurts.

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Fraud, funding, and science

Everything from health to wealth depends on science in the modern world, so, obviously, scientific results had better be rock-solid. And yet honesty in science is enforced by what amounts to a gentleman’s agreement, and the penalities for breaking it are nothing more than career damage. Contrast that to financial dishonesty. Its only direct effect is loss of money, but it is regulated by hundreds of laws, and the penalties include jail time.

Scientific honesty has been in the spotlight recently because of fraud in stem cell work by Dr. Hwang in South Korea. Science, which is the premier forum for publishing scientific results together with Nature, plans to have high profile work more stringently reviewed. This is good and necessary, but it only scratches the surface.

Fame and fortune in some fields of science only mean that the corrosive influence money on the scientific process is more noticeable. It’s present everywhere, and is arguably more insidious when it’s invisible. Dealing with that influence at all levels would be more effective than trying to promote stopgap honesty at the top. Read more »

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Weaponized Free Speech

Knowing the Enemy: The anthropology of insurgency, by George Packer, is an insightful article in the current New Yorker (Dec 18, 2006). He discusses how the information / propaganda / media component of any fight has become hugely important, and how insurgents / freedom fighters / terrorists around the world have been quicker to use the new tool than established armies.

‘Just before the 2004 American elections … [in] Bin Laden’s public statements … that offered a list of grievances against America: Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, global warming. … The odd inclusion of environmentalist rhetoric … made clear that “this wasn’t a genuine list of grievances. This was an Al Qaeda information strategy.” … Bin Laden shrewdly created an implicit association between Al Qaeda and the Democratic Party, for he had come to feel that Bush’s strategy in the war on terror was sustaining his own global importance. … Al Qaeda’s core leadership had become a propaganda hub.”‘ [italics in original]

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Advertising: what you don’t know gets you

Advertising is a nuisance. We tune that stuff out. Right?

Well, yes. Right. Which turns out to be exactly what gives it its power. If we didn’t tune it out, it wouldn’t work.

A while back, 1997 to be precise, there was an article in Nature showing that subliminal messages (i.e. below-the-threshold messages, tuned-out messages) influenced product choice more than conscious ones (via Mindhacks).

This study was done by Adrian North and colleagues from the University of Leicester. They played traditional French (accordion music) or traditional German (a Bierkeller brass band – oompah music) music at customers and watched the sales of wine from their experimental wine shelves, which contained French and German wine matched for price and flavour. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, on German music days 73% was German – in other words, if you took some wine off their shelves you were 3 or 4 times more likely to choose a wine that matched the music than wine that didn’t match the music.

Did people notice the music? Probably in a vague sort of way. But only 1 out of 44 customers who agreed to answer some questions at the checkout spontaneously mentioned it as the reason they bought the wine. When asked specifically if they thought that the music affected their choice 86% said that it didn’t. The behavioural influence of the music was massive, but the customers didn’t notice or believe that it was affecting them.

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Condom Sizes

I have to add my two cents’ worth. I can’t help myself. It’d take a much stronger person than me to resist something so giggle-worthy.

The big news is:

The conclusion of all this scientific endeavour is that about 60% of Indian men have penises which are between three and five centimetres shorter than international standards used in condom manufacture.

Newsflash, guys: it’s not length that matters. It’s width.

I mean, use your head. (No, not that one. The other one. The one with an actual brain in it.) All length does is enable the penis to reach the cervix of the uterus, which lies at the end of the vagina. The cervix has the same level of sensation as an internal organ. Pushing on the cervix is a lot like palpating the liver: it’s not that you can’t feel it, but it’s just pressure and not terribly interesting. A short penis might not reach as far as the cervix, but who cares? Only guys involved in measuring contests. Width, on the other hand, affects all the extremely sensitive and very interesting parts near the surface.

But, to be perfectly honest, even width is a minor matter, compared to knowing how to use what you’ve got and she’s got. Ability, and caring enough to use the ability, that’s what makes all the difference. So, now do you see why Zsa Zsa Gabor, or somebody, said years ago that the sexiest part of a man is his mind?

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Next: Life on Mars?

It sure looks like NASA photos show liquid water currently present on Mars. Now. Not a few hundred billion years ago.

the same crater on Mars, dry in August 1999, and with a frozen water seep in September 2005
(Caption: New Gully Deposit in a Crater in the Centauri Montes Region.) If that’s not a frozen water seep, I’ll eat my hat.

close-up of seep

The implications are vast. So far, we’ve found life everywhere on Earth that has even the occasional molecule of liquid water. Maybe that’s just Earth. But if it’s something that happens whenever there’s liquid water, the implications for finding life in the rest of the universe are huge. And the news of water now on Mars means we can actually find out which of the two possibilities it is. Is it just Earth? Or does life just happen?

I can’t imagine a more important question. Memo to NASA, ESA, Japan, EVERYBODY, go, now, to Mars and find out!

If we do find life on Mars, there’s another fork to the fascination. If Mars life is very different from ours, it’ll give us some idea of what we can expect as far as variation in life in the universe goes. If it’s very similar, then it’s even more of a puzzle. Did Mars life come from Earth? Vice versa? Did both come from some third place? And if so, is it within or outside our solar system? Or is it, perhaps, just the most common way for life to evolve, and is Earth-like life what we’ll find out among the stars?

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Not about oil (yeah, right)

There’s been much hoohah over the Iraq Study Group’s report and it’s suggestions about how to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic with a troop movement here and a withdrawal there. Lost in the static is this gem:

From Antonia Juhasz, Alternet, Dec. 7th:

The ISG report, however, goes further, stating that “the United States should assist Iraqi leaders to reorganize the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise.” …

If these proposals are followed, Iraq’s national oil industry will be privatized and opened to foreign firms, and in control of all of Iraq’s oil wealth.

Mission Accomplished.

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Fiji’s military coup: it’s not so simple

For those who don’t keep close tabs on the situation there (and why don’t you, hmm?) I’ll give some background.

They just had a military, but bloodless, coup that deposed the elected government. This is Not Good and is meeting with widespread condemnation.

But, for once, it’s not that simple.

The military should not overthrow elected governments. This is absolutely true. And yet it’s Commodore Bainimarama who has most of the truth on his side, even if what he’s had to do about it is regrettable.

First the history: The source of the trouble goes back over a century when the British imported thousands of Indians to work the sugar plantations. Ethnic Fijians, like other Melanesians, feel that community is like family, and when any member of the community is in need, others should fill that need. This makes it hard to accumulate wealth, and also makes it hard to control workers with the threat of being fired. If you’re fired, your village tides you over till you find something else. And there’s no point working your butt off, because as soon as you get enough money, some relative will ask you for some of it. Kerekere, as the principle is called, has its very good sides and its not-so-good sides. But what it definitely does is make for less controllable workers. Hence the vast numbers of Indians brought in.

Fast forward to the present. Read more »

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Males prefer older females

Not among humans, of course. This is among chimps, as reported in the Nov 25th, Science News (sub. reqd.), based on work done by Martin N. Muller and others reported in the Nov 21 issue of Current Biology (abstract).

(I’m not sure why this is big news at this point. I heard much the same thing in primate anthropology classes I took decades ago. This has been observed repeatedly.)

Muller’s explanation, though, is what led to this post, just as soon as I stopped hooting with disbelieving laughter. From the SciNews article, “…nothing beats the sex appeal of an old female chimp. If that preference makes no sense to the average human male who’s entranced by young, smooth-skinned women, it’s because the mating game has evolved in different directions in chimps and in people…. People usually form long-term sexual partnerships. Men thus tend to look for women’s physical signs of youth, which signify childbearing potential for years to come….”

This is the first time I’ve seen one of these just-so story explanations based on male monogamy. The very first time. I mean why didn’t I think of that? Of course human males have to go for young women, because after they’ve found their one and only, they’ll never ever have sex with anyone else. If they go for some licentious old hottie, fwump go their chances of fathering more than a couple of kids before she’s past it.
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